“A Continuum of Freeing Design & Vigorous Futures” — A Journey from Racial Bullying to Time Warps

The next release from GraffitiVersal, “A Continuum of Freeing Design & Vigorous Futures” is set to begin presales soon. The deck is comprised of approaches for both emancipatory design in the present and also in the future. But how did the “A Continuum of Freeing Design & Vigorous Futures” Deck come to be?

Radically dreaming of better futures is something I've done ever since being an elementary schooler. At the time, I had no choice but to do so. As a survivor of daily physical and verbal racialized bullying in K-8 the only way that I sustained my spirit day to day is through immersing my mind in other worlds via science fiction films and novels, comic books, anime, and role playing games. There had to be other, better, and more just and free worlds out there.

It’s for this personal reason that I currently absolutely believe that the power of radical future narratives, when paired with the practice of emancipatory design, can take problem solving in the present to more audacious and liberatory heights, no matter how dire the current moment in society we find ourselves.

There had to be other, better, and more just and free worlds out there.

But these connections all really didn’t start to gel for me until a point in 2017. At that moment, I was serendipitously working at the intersection of three organizations — At that time…

  • I was working as a board member at Chicago Freedom School, an organization that trains Black and Brown youth how to organize in their communities for key resources and issues, and also had been involved in neighborhood advocacy and issue campaigns since 2011.
  • I was working as the first Director of Operations at Greater Good Studio, a human centered design firm for social impact, and was in part hired on to explicitly help GGS build an equity lens to its studio given my background in DEI.
  • I was working on the board of Creative Reaction Lab, which trains Black and Latinx youth to become the next generation of civic leaders addressing racial inequities in our cities, leading to social, cultural, and economic growth for both cultures, all through design.

Being in all three spaces at the same time was a prime catalyst for my own exploration into equity / emancipatory design and the foundation of the Continuum Deck today. What was critical for my journey was being able to experience not only the assets but also the challenges of DEI, design, and organizing as fields.

I was able to observe that DEI professionals often had trouble making theory into the tangible.

I was able to observe that well meaning designers in the field of social impact often had trouble understanding how design has been developed under a White supremacist, patriarchal, classist, sexist lens which could negate any positive intent.

I was able to observe that organizers sometimes had trouble translating their ideas into visions that people in power (politicians, developers, business leaders) could latch onto.

What was critical for my journey was being able to experience not only the assets but also the challenges of DEI, design, and organizing as fields.

And so, in late 2018, compelled by the promise of these intersections, I set off to create my own model of design (let’s call it the GV Model of Design), merging the assets of the DEI, organizing, and design worlds. Where I differentiated with this design model was its central energy and focus of the design process–Humility and Awareness.

For me, Humility was key based on my experiences both locally and abroad. In my career I’ve had the opportunity to work in three nonwhite spaces: at an all Black company, a majority Latinx nonprofit, and a majority Chinese National corporate subsidiary in Shanghai. Internationally, I have lived a total of three years abroad–one in England, two in Mainland China (Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou). My experiences in the PRC, where I had to speak mostly in Mandarin Chinese the majority of my time there, was incredibly humbling. Learning how to navigate in racially homogenous cultures different from my own was incredibly humbling. I made mistakes. I misunderstood cues. I didn’t get all the nuances. However, the way that I got through the experience was by being humble enough to say: “I don’t know everything” and “I need to learn more and listen more”.

As for Awareness, this core value in the above design process came from my experiences in neighborhood organizing and advocacy. From the period of 2011–2017, I humbly stumbled through a journey of cross- economic and cross-racial organizing, advocacy, and self-work through weekly engagement in block club meetings, neighborhood councils, healing circles, community meetings, and organizing campaigns around issues such as gentrification, economic development, and unjust policing, and always intentionally under Black and Brown leaders indigenous to West Side (West Humboldt Park, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale) and South Side (Bronzeville) neighborhoods of Chicago. To be able to be of use in this work, to community members and leaders, I had to take that humility and make myself more aware–of the culture, history, economies, social pains, and other systemic constructs that served as barriers for community thriving.

I made mistakes. I misunderstood cues. I didn’t get all the nuances. However, the way that I got through the experience was by being humble enough to say: “I don’t know everything” and “I need to learn more and listen more”.

There is something critically important that happens when you start with Humility and Awareness. When one starts with Humility, one opens oneself not only to perspective change, but HEART change. In order to truly empathize with someone different from you, you not only have to be able to see from their perspective, but you also must open your heart for transformation — and then it is at this point that you may potentially feel an even an ounce of someone else’s anxiety, pain, and/or struggle. Like, not feel, but FEEL. This is why I steer away from using “empathy” as a design concept in the first place — it never has been strong enough and veers in the voyeuristic. It’s mostly surface feeling. But, when one is humble, they are heart minded and thus more aware of the differences in privilege afforded them versus others. When one is humble, they are more willing to be led by people unlike them, such as folks of other cultures or gender identities or economic classes. When one is humble, they are bought into the fact that there are multiple contexts in which to view a community issue, and they understand that they may not have the right “solution”.

“We Got Y’all” was a parody of a nonprofit on Issa Rae’s HBO award winning show, Insecure. Notice how the White hand is “holding up” the Black children, almost pulling them out of the Blackness below into orange which dominates the entire image. Credit: HBO.
A scene from HBO’s Insecure — where a coworker of Issa Rae’s character says, in regards to an upcoming field trip for Black and Latinx youth, “Wouldn’t they rather go to an African-American museum, or like, a Latino museum, and just see how much more grateful other generations were?”

One of the most humble people I have ever known was this White community organizer here in Chicago. You look at him, and he would come off as this mega hipster. But, you put him in a community meeting or block club setting with Black or Latinx folks from the neighborhood, and surprisingly he’d fit in — not fully of course, because he was a hipster white male in a gentrifying community — but he could make his way around conversations and he would listen. Time and time again, when I have shared space with White folks like this guy, I’d just straight up ask out of curiosity — “how are you so comfortable being in these spaces if you don’t mind my asking? So many other white folks who come into this neighborhood seem to have trouble connecting with residents, but not you?”

Time and time again, when I have shared space with White folks like this guy, I’d just straight up ask out of curiosity — “how are you so comfortable being in these spaces if you don’t mind my asking? So many other White folks who come into this neighborhood seem to have trouble connecting with residents, but not you?”

The answer was always something along the lines of “I’ve worked for folks like this. Been led by them, directed by them. And, I’m not here one minute for a resume bullet and then gone the next. I’m here — building relationships, stumbling and making a fool of myself at times, but being humble enough to say I don’t know everything, if much of anything.”

I too, as an upper middle class Black male, have worked through my own humility through working alongside and for Black and Latinx community members who have had less formalized (vs informalized) education than I (and thus less social mobility and privilege). That humility, I’ve been told very often and directly, is why these gracious folks have even kept me around in these spaces, quite frankly!

And so, Humility & Awareness became core to everything that I did, especially as a socially mobile able-bodied cisgender heterosexual male, once I was able to name and codify it as the central and all encompassing phase of design that I ascribed to.

In 2019, I had a hunger and desire to build my own skills in core design capabilities. At the time, the majority of the courses in Chicago were really expensive for someone working at a nonprofit ($3000 — $5000 for an intensive at Northwestern U. or the Institute of Design — IIT, for instance). Other than that, I could either do online courses or travel out of state — at the time I wanted something reasonably priced and local . Concurrently, I had been piloting the design model at my day time job, to the point that a friend suggested I start a public design course. After doing some stakeholder interviews and working through a few prototype offerings, The Graffiti Gym was conceived, where I taught to the model.

Photos from The Graffiti Gym (2019)

The Graffiti Gym provided public equity design workshops for non-profit, for profit, philanthropy, government sector, and community organizing workers. We had a sliding scale for ticket prices, and instead of operating workshops in a fancy design space downtown, they were held in a Black owned community coworking space called Homiey on the West Side.

Things from there started to snowball into more opportunities to use the model. I was eventually invited to teach equity design at Loyola University, where I made the above model central to the entire curriculum. I taught two courses in 2020–2021 and was able to receive feedback on the functionality and clarity of the model.

Pre-COVID Equity Design Class at Loyola University Chicago.
Post-COVID Equity Design Course at Loyola University Chicago.

Now, before I go further into talking about the Deck itself, where is the connection to the mystical and the galactic? I would be remise to not mention my narrative around collecting comic books, games, and sci fi since childhood, as it connects to how I found hope in what ultimately is now being called the spaces of Afrofuturism and Black Speculative Futures. As a child, I was a fervent reader of comics like X-Men, Spawn, Planetary, and various indie Image comic book series. That has kept up through today–from Amandla Stenberg’s Niobe-She is Life (2015), Eric Dean Seaton’s Legend of the Mantamaji, and Te-Nehisi Coates’ entrance into Black Panther (2015) up through Image’s brilliant space opera series Saga at present, I’ve consumed as much as I’ve been able to with two almost twin toddlers in tow. I’ve also had numerous experiences playing role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, Marvel Overpower card games as a youth, and a perpetual obsession with sci fi and fantasy shows / movies like The Tomorrow People, Terminator, Aliens, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Stargate, Stardust, Lord of the Rings, Cowboy Bebop and Starship Troopers. But you have to remember, while Black nerd culture (and nerd culture in general) is having a moment currently, it wasn’t always this way. For those of us Black nerds, our Black contemporaries may have seen such endeavors as uncool, but as I look back, it’s honestly fully understandable. It’s understandable because those aforementioned narratives about time, space, alternate realities, and the mystical are predominantly centered around Whiteness /White supremacist cultural norms. I get it — because as a kid I could feel these stories in my head, but not my heart and soul. With few exceptions these stories subversively told me that I and my people wouldn’t be flying spacecrafts in hyperdrive, wouldn’t be making quantum leaps, wouldn’t be connecting with new worlds, wouldn’t be engaging in any mystical journeys.

A movie poster for the film, “See You Yesterday”. Michael J Fox goes backwards or forwards in time, what is he doing? Riding a vintage skateboard or a hoverboard. Eden Duncan-Smith and Dante’ Crichlow’s characters above figure out how to travel across time, and what do they do? Try to save a black family member from being murdered by the police. It’s just different.

Black people aren’t supposed to traverse the fantastical, even though our ability to thrive against all odds would tell you otherwise ! And on top of that we did so communally, bringing everyone along with us on the Nebuchadnezzar ship. It wasn’t just about exploring new worlds for kicks and giggles or galactic space cred like many White-centric manifest destiny narratives are focused on in Scifi (did someone say Dune?). Needless to say, all of this was a huge disconnect for me growing up.

“Black people aren’t supposed to traverse the fantastical, even though our ability to thrive against all odds would tell you otherwise ! And on top of that we did so communally, bringing everyone along with us on the Nebuchadnezzar ship. It wasn’t just about exploring new worlds for kicks and giggles or galactic space cred like many White-centric manifest destiny narratives are focused on in Scifi (did someone say Dune?). Needless to say, all of this was a huge disconnect for me growing up.”

“Where were you when Black Panther came out?” So post 2018’s Black Panther film releasing, writers everywhere were frantically scripting articles about the core themes of Afrofuturism. I remember after reading a number of articles, and saying to myself: “Wait–this is what Afrofuturism is…that’s just daydreaming, justice/liberation in the future, and black nerd sh1t”! That is certainly a gross simplification, but this is when it made sense that there were resonant themes through Black experience-centric media I had just recently consumed — Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Janelle Monae’s ArchAndroid (had it for years but revisited), and finally Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. It felt like the things I had been drawn to and found my identity in my whole life were now converging and relevant, albeit with a more cool conceptual name and a burgeoning field of research and practice.

So, that brings us to the present. Well, 2021.

Because of the January 6th insurrection I made a card deck in 2021 called Racial DeckEquity. My frustration and rage led me to conceive and designed the Racial DeckEquity Cards over the 2021 Martin Luther King Jr weekend. I wanted to hold organizations who posted black squares in June 2020 to actually act on their platitudes.

Racial DeckEquity Cardset — ID: placed on top of a purple background, with black, purple, red, and yellow planets and a mesh wireframe under everything.

In making the deck, I wanted to create a usable tool — a deck of cards much like what designers often use — for organizational leaders across sectors to be able to go beyond DEI in an HR context. I was surprised at the level of interest, so much so that I decided to create an LLC in Oct of 2021.

I had, ever since creating Racial DeckEquity, known that I wanted to try my hand at a equity design deck, but over the Winter holidays, while working on an ongoing Afrofuturism/Black Speculative art series called PLANETARY (see the connection there?!), it dawned on me that I could also create a card deck focused on emancipatory futures. Hence, the Continuum Deck was born.

From this piece made in my Procreate app….(ID: An illustration of Naomi Osaka, in green, with yellow, black, and pink planets in the background, and spaceships of colors blue, pink, orange, and magenta placed throughout)

The first deck I am putting out, which was originally going to be two separate decks, is the Continuum Deck. The deck contains both content detailing an approach for designing for equitable & just outcomes in the present and content detailing an approach for designing for thriving and flourishing worlds in the future. Said content is directly influenced by the work of organizers, designers, strategists, social scientists, and futurists. The GV design framework above is core to both the Freeing Design Deck and the Vigorous Futures Deck–it’s multimodal, in fact. Both decks can be used separately, though, at the same time, in at least 3 different ways.

Box art for the Continuum Deck.
A macro snapshot of the Freeing Design Deck
A macro snapshot of the Vigorous Futures Deck

I’m excited in these final months to be able to release this deck. Honestly, given I began concepting the GV model of design in 2018 this is the longest project / thing I’ve ever worked on in my life. But, I’m also thankful. Thankful for folks like Antionette Carroll who, through her and Creative Reaction Lab’s ECCD model, really helped pave the way for the Freeing Design Deck. Thankful for the most impactful education I’ve ever received and that came from the Black and Latinx community organizers and community leaders (mostly women) I’ve had the pleasure of working for and alongside here in Chicago. And, I’m thankful for all of brilliant content that other folks are working on right now in the way of Afrofuturism and/or Speculative Future card decks, as I know they are all far smarter than I am (check out the upcoming Building Utopia Deck and the dope Black women behind it!). Look, I’m just happy to be here.

I often find myself always going back to what Mariame Kaba says: "hope is a discipline". I know of no better way of explaining how and why this way of imagination works to sustain solutioning in our present.

I have so much to learn in this experience to come. I count this as an exciting time. My only hope/wish in all of this is that this deck can be of some sort of help and a unique resource to even just a few people.

And speaking of hope, I often find myself always going back to what Mariame Kaba says: "hope is a discipline". I know of no better way of explaining how and why this way of imagination works to sustain solutioning in our present. It just does.

And so, I hope. May we all hope. Abundantly and ferociously.

Credit: Monica Trinidad

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At the intersection of design, equity, operations, & people: Designer (service & equity) • Strategist (bizops & people) • Equity (org change models/tools)

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At the intersection of design, equity, operations, & people: Designer (service & equity) • Strategist (bizops & people) • Equity (org change models/tools)

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